Some of you may remember the case of the suburban Philadelphia school district accused of using remote-activated laptop cameras to spy on its students in the privacy of their own homes. District officials at first claimed that the technology had only been used rarely, and only for legitimate purposes such as tracking stolen laptops.
Well, not exactly.
“The president of the Lower Merion school board said Friday that investigators had retrieved “a substantial number” of photos secretly snapped by laptops the district gave its high school students, and that officials were arranging for parents whose children were photographed to see the pictures in private.
In his strongest terms since the furor began over the laptop-tracking program two months ago, board president David Ebby also said district officials “deeply regret the mistakes and misguided actions” that have given rise to a lawsuit, a federal criminal inquiry, a call for new privacy legislation, and a wave of national publicity.
But Ebby said Lower Merion’s continuing internal investigation had found no evidence that its employees used the technology for “inappropriate” purposes.”
“We are committed to disclosing fully what happened, correcting our mistakes, and making sure that they do not happen again,” he said in a statement addressed to parents and guardians and posted on the district’s Web site.
Ebby’s comments came less than a day after a lawyer for Harriton High sophomore Blake Robbins filed a motion in federal court asserting that the district’s system for tracking lost or stolen laptops had secretly captured “thousands” of images, including photos of students in their homes, the Web sites they visited, and excerpts of their online chats.”
The attorney for one family claims that in a two-week period last fall, a laptop webcam was activated more than 400 times by the school district.
There’s a theory in science called “the technological imperative.” In essence, it holds that for individuals as well as for societies, if something can be done, it eventually will be done, because the power granted us by technology is too seductive to be resisted.
That certainly seems to have been the case in this instance. Software embedded in school-supplied laptops for legitimate purposes offered a temptation to be abused, and apparently it was, although the degree and motive of that abuse is still to be determined.
It’s a cautionary tale for those who would trust government and business to “do the right thing” with the technological power and information they are given. Without independent oversight and strict rules and enforcement, the power to do good things will eventually be used to do bad things as well. Because no matter how sophisticated and powerful our technology, the people using it remain only human, with all the frailties that implies.